UPDATED WITH TEST DRIVE VIDEO
What do you think of when you hear the word “Lexus”? Comfortable? Reliable? Gussied-up Toyota? 21st century Buick? While all of these may come to mind, Lexus is hard at work adding one more thought to the list: Hybrid. Denoted by a lower case “h”, Lexus is trying to take advantage of the brand equity already created by the Hybrid Synergy Drive in Toyota products such as the Prius. The RX line of SUVs is loved by women the world over for its higher ride height, inoffensive styling, AWD, bulletproof reliability record, and smooth car-like ride. Now we’re here to see if the company has been successful in transforming its hugely successful midsize luxury SUV into a planet-ameliorating hippie-mobile. Read more below to find out if Lexus is successful.
Aside from a couple of requisite badges, the RX400h looks a lot like the standard RX350 from the outside. So you would think that the 400h would use the 3.5L V6 from the 350 and add a couple of battery packs, but you’d be wrong. The hybrid actually uses the 3.3L V6 from the previous gen RX, the 330. This smaller engine plus the battery add up to two less horsepower than the standard RX (268 vs. 270) but an increase in fuel economy of almost 40% in combined driving. One would obviously see the best results with the hybrid in the city, where the battery is able to power the vehicle exclusively and not use a drop of gas. But I shouldn’t dismiss the badges so readily because that’s really what people are buying this vehicle for. I can just imagine the conversation at the dealership now: “Honey! I have to have the hybrid! It will go so well with my LV purse! OMG!”
The exterior of the vehicle is what people expect from Lexus. It’s pretty bland and more of an evolution over the previous gen RX rather than a revolution. Thanks to this evolution, it is unlikely to look stale in the future (at least not any more than it already does). Lexus has been very careful in redesigning the RX every generation so far. It’s a bread-and-butter model for them so I wouldn’t expect the 2010 redesign of the RX (set to debut at this November’s LA Auto Show) to be a huge departure for them. But why mess with a good thing? Hardly earth-shatteringly beautiful, but nor is it offensive. It will appeal to a large percentage of the population. The female population that is.
The practicality of the RX is one of its fortes, as is the case with just about any vehicle with a hatch instead of a sedan-like trunk. The back seats fold down in a 40/20/40 configuration. Handy! There’s even a power trunk closer for those people who are too weak to close it themselves, as if the women who spend their days at the gyms and spas aren’t strong enough. The RX seats five people comfortably which should be fine for your Canadian family and your (on average) 1.5 kids. For the well-heeled large family, Lexus offers the larger GX470 and LX570 (see our review of the LX for more info).
The interior of the RX400h is pretty well unchanged from the standard RX although there is the addition of an LCD screen underneath the speedometer, which I’ll get back to in a moment. The interior is a pleasant place to be and the driver is given an excellent view of their surroundings; the blind spots are negligible. The fit and finish inside is top notch although there are too many buttons to get used to, and the layout of these buttons isn’t the most intuitive. The sound system is quite good and only gets better when you opt for the Mark Levinson.
Back to the LCD screen under the speedometer: the screen indicates to the driver whether the battery is being charged by the regenerative braking system or if the battery is moving the vehicle on its own. This graphic serves as a video game for the driver to play that can only result in better fuel economy. If the driver is able to stay in electric-only mode for as long as possible, he or she will get maximal benefit from the battery system.
The steering is about as direct as one would expect from a vehicle that is a Lexus, an SUV, and a hybrid. These three things don’t exactly conspire to give the driver razor sharp handling and control. But is that really what prospective buyers would expect? No, it isn’t. So the steering does what is asked of it, which is guide the vehicle safely from hockey rink to dance studio and back to the West end with little ones in tow. And the smooth transmission ensures that the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato isn’t spilled in the process.
The 400h is over $10,000 more than the 350. So is it worth the extra cost? Is the fuel economy that much better? I’d argue not mainly because it would take over 10 years to save enough money at the pumps to justify the cost. And I don’t really see owners holding on to them for much more than 3-5 years. So while the 400h may tick the boxes for those bought and paid for women desiring to show everyone how much they love the Earth and want to lower their vehicle’s emissions, more intelligent individuals would be better served to get the standard RX350, add a couple luxury goodies, and use the extra couple thousand to plant trees (see http://w.plant-a-tree-today.org/ to learn more about offsetting your carbon emissions).
The RX400h is a comfortable, if dull, vehicle that is well suited to our Northern climate thanks to its all-wheel drive system and respectable ground clearance. But don’t mistake the RX for an off-roader because it most definitely is not; this SUV is a soft-roader. It’s almost too bad the RX350 is so good because it doesn’t let the RX400h shine through. The moral of the story is that only those looking to show off their badges (and labels) need apply.
Price as tested: $54,000
Summary: Don’t be fooled by the hybrid badges, they don’t make this vehicle “green”. The RX350 is the one to have for the non-poseurs.
Exterior Design: 6/10. Bland but inoffensive, and that’s what the hoochies want.
Interior Design: 6/10. A few too many buttons but solid quality.
Engine: 5/10. This is still the first gen Synergy Drive, and in an SUV application, it isn’t ideal.
Transmission: 5/10. Nothing special here.
Audio/Video: 7/10. Make sure to go for the Mark Levinson!
Value: 4/10. Go with the RX350, it’s over $10g less and it’s fuel economy is still respectable.
Overall (not an average): 6/10. The RX is hard to fault, but it’s also hard to love.
Special thanks to Bruce Kirkland and Lexus of Edmonton.